By Contributor on May 31, 2006
By Sasha Abramsky

Weldon Angelos has matching several-day-old stubble on his scalp and on his face. He has striking steel-blue eyes. He holds his body confidently, even aggressively, clad in prison-gray slacks and work shirt. The only visible sign of unease he betrays is the ceaseless intertwining of his fingers. He is twenty-five years old, a resident of the medium security federal penitentiary at Lompoc, California. He is slated to remain behind bars until 2059, when he will be seventy-eight.

Angelos works in the prison’s dental lab and takes college classes—studying religion, philosophy, politics, anything to take his mind off the facts of his incarceration. He hasn’t seen his two sons in the year-plus that he has been in prison. He’s only seen his daughter a couple times. And he doesn’t know if he’ll ever set foot outside the penitentiary grounds again.

“Nothing could be worse than this,” he acknowledges, hours into an interview in the prison’s chilly visiting room, as we sit on blue plastic seats, a low-lying gray plastic table between us. “Even death offers a certain tranquility. I’m not talking about this prison. Just being locked up. Watching your kids grow up, your girl move on, that’s the hardest part right there. I have nightmares I’m being killed, all the time. I’m being shot. I have nightmares something happens to my kids because I’m not there.”

Angelos is not a murderer. Nor is he a rapist, an armed robber, or a kidnapper. If he were, chances are he’d be staring down a shorter sentence than the fifty-five years he’s burdened with. No, he is a medium-scale Salt Lake City marijuana dealer who had no prior felony convictions.

His father, Jim, a Greek immigrant, himself served time in prison in Utah in the 1950s for stealing a Geiger counter. Jim was an eccentric, perennially aspiring country music singer, his mind full of a million plans that never materialized. The family bounced futilely between Nashville and Salt Lake for much of Weldon’s early years.

When Weldon’s mother walked out, Jim was left to raise his three children alone. They lived in dire poverty, their residences a series of apartments in Salt Lake’s dilapidated public housing units. Weldon remembers standing in line for free, government-issued cheese and powdered milk, and walking two miles to school in the snow because the family couldn’t afford a car. Weldon’s friends were members of gangs such as the notorious Vario Loco Town (VLT). In the housing projects, Bloods, Crips, VLTers, and others whom Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s big sister, calls “crummy people,” were a routine presence.

A high school dropout, Weldon had three kids by the time he was twenty. He had two with Zandrah, a girl he’d met when he was only fourteen or fifteen, when he was working as a cook in a Greek restaurant, and one with the woman he left Zandrah for. Somewhat improbably, Weldon thrived as a rap musician—becoming a part of Snoop Dogg’s coterie, recording several albums, picking up the accoutrements (guns, flashy cars, the tough-guy look) necessary for the gangsta image. And, at the same time, he began dealing marijuana, he says, to buy things for his children that his father never bought for him.

Then, in 2002, he sold three half-pound bags, worth a few hundred dollars a piece, to an informant who was working for the Metro Gang Unit as a way to avoid a long prison sentence on his own drug and gun charges. Weldon was arrested by local officers working in conjunction with federal agents.

The informant said that Angelos had carried a gun on his ankle holster during the transactions, at which point the Feds stepped in for the catch. They charged Angelos with offenses under section 924(c) of the federal code—provisions that triggered mandatory sentences for dealers who carried guns during their drug transactions. Instead of facing a sentence in state court for his marijuana dealing that likely would have ranged from probation to a few years behind bars, now—despite the fact the informant’s words were not backed up by any photographic record proving the drug dealer was indeed armed during the deals—Angelos was facing federal charges that could see him locked away for the rest of his life.

The Feds offered Angelos a deal—sixteen years if he would plead guilty on the gun charges, or face upwards of 100 years if he chose to go to trial. Angelos, who to this day continues to deny he was carrying a gun during the drug sales, refused to take the plea. And so the U.S. Attorney’s Office threw the full weight of the law at him, charging him with three 924(c) offenses, each one triggering a mandatory sentence longer than the previous one, each sentence to be served consecutively.

After a jury found him guilty of the charges, on November 16, 2004, Angelos, then aged twenty-four, faced his sentencing. Judge Paul Cassell, in handing down fifty-five years, expressed outrage at the sentence the law required him to impose.

“The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” he said. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape. . . . To correct what appears to be an unjust sentence, the court also calls on the President to commute Mr. Angelos’s sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment.”

When the judge polled the jury, eleven of the twelve stated they thought Angelos should receive five to ten years in prison, rather than more than five decades, but the judge acknowledged that he had no choice in the matter.

Robert Lund, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Utah and the man responsible for prosecuting the case, justifies the sentence.

“Weldon Angelos was a member of a really violent street gang, Vario Loco Town, notorious for violent crimes, shootings, murder, serious assault, and drug distribution,” Lund says. The Supreme Court, Lund continues, “has said armed crime is one of the biggest problems facing our country, and drug distribution is a huge problem. Epidemic. So Congress has chosen to impose huge penalties to try to deter this form of conduct. Section 924(c) is the law of the land. My obligation is to accept that when someone commits the crimes to prosecute him, and then let the courts impose the penalty that’s required by law.”

It’s easy to agree that drug dealing is bad, and that drug dealing while carrying weaponry is even worse. But it’s a leap from there to mandatory sentencing, and, more specifically, extraordinarily punitive mandatory sentencing.

In fact, precisely because mandatory sentences don’t distinguish between someone like Angelos and a seriously violent, predatory offender, they cease to adequately protect the rights of the individual.

“At the end of the day,” argues Jerome Mooney, Angelos’s original defense attorney, “shouldn’t all punishment be individualized in some fashion?”

In recent years, some state electorates and legislatures have started to back away from the more extreme aspects of the drug wars, in part because the costs of incarceration are so high. The Feds, meanwhile, have stepped up their campaign. More and more young men and women are going to federal prisons for longer and longer periods of time on drug convictions, including, as with Angelos, marijuana charges.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the federal prison system had more than 180,000 inmates at the end of 2004. In 1984, 11,854 people were charged with drug offenses in federal court. By 1999, 29,306 were charged. In 1986, the average length of time a person convicted of drug charges in federal court could expect to spend behind bars was two and a half years. By 2003, a year in which fully 37 percent of all charges filed in federal court were for drug crimes, the average length of time such prisoners could expect to serve had skyrocketed to almost seven years.

“It seems to me to be basically irrational,” says Erik Luna, a law professor at the University of Utah and co-appellate counsel for Angelos. “But it’s a warfare mentality. When you perceive other individuals you consider to be partners in your warfare lowering the hostilities toward the enemy, it’s a natural response to increase your offensive. The federal system has expanded exponentially, and the punishments have increased almost every year.”

In fact, so long are the sentences that prosecutors can threaten defendants with unless they agree to a plea bargain that the vast majority of federal cases now no longer go to trial, says Mary Price, general counsel of the D.C.-based organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Guilty or innocent, the risks of losing in trial are now too great for most to take.

Angelos’s lawyers are contemplating an appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to find the sentence cruel and unusual. Twenty U.S. attorneys, five judges, and a former Attorney General have signed on to an amicus brief. But Angelos’s chances aren’t good, since the Supreme Court has already upheld California’s three-strikes law, which has sentenced low-end offenders to life behind bars.

“I’ve seen people go to prison for four years for shooting people,” Angelos says, pondering his fate in the chilly prison visiting room. “I know someone getting out after eight years for cold-blooded killing someone. I’ll be seeing murderers, rapists leave, and I’ll still be in here if I don’t win my appeal.”

Sasha Abramsky, a freelance writer in Sacramento, is the author of the recently published book “Conned,” on voting rights in the United States.

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Comments

It is now 03-25-15...And he's still in there!!! I wasn't aware of this story since it was announced in 2004. Now it has been 11 years since he was incarcerated...11 YEARS, and 44 years later he'll be out by the time he's 78 or 80 and his kids are grandparents!!! This is almost like the same horrifying concept as it was for Solomon Northup, the real protagonist in his 12 years of slavery, this is the same constant problem dealing with today's drug conviction sentencing rules. The so-called "War on Drugs" has taken its toll on destroying the lives of countless innocent offenders and their families, Weldon unfortunately being one of them. I'm not gonna sit back and wait until our current president or the next pres. gives him the Pardon he and his family have been waiting and fighting for, I'm gonna promote his freedom, until at last he is reunited with his family as soon as possible. Because his kids are gonna be graduating high school this year and the last thing they want is to not see their dad sitting in the audience as his sons march up the platform receiving their certificates (diplomas)... 55 years is not a sentence, It's A Curse!!! A curse I vow that I am going to help break. I'm going to Free Weldon Angelos! ! ! And End the injustice that has been shadowing America for nearly a century and prove that the US constitution must be followed that Franklin's concept in The Bill Of Rights will now and forever state officially that "ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL" and revitalizing the government to prove to the world that America can be A Just Nation from now on! President Obama, if you're reading this? Please do everyone a favor...GIVE HIM THE PARDON PLEASE!!! LONG LIVE FREEDOM!!! GABE*
If you're reading this, you know very well that this man deserves his freedom. It's been 11 long and suffering years for him and his family, anybody in their right minds would say his sentencing is outrageous and harsh beyond knowledge! He has served his time long enough and has learned his lesson and realized how much of his "actions" costed almost half of his life and now his family and lawyers are fighting for his freedom. If they don't earn the President's pardon before the end of his term, Weldon and his family will be suffering for another year or a half until the next Prez hopefully gives the pardon. But until then, Weldon will be spending another day, week, month, or year trapped behind bars serving his 55 year mandatory curse and his kids will continue to grow up without their father physically being there instead of a phone call and his dad is at the point of possibly dying without his son to comfort him in his possible final days of life!!! We have got to get Weldon out before it becomes Too Late! I promise I will do everything in my power to help the Angelos family reunite with Weldon and set him Free At Last! Sincerely, an Angel on Earth*
It is now 5-10-15, Weldon is still kept in his mandatory cursed cage, the president hasn't done anything yet to solve the mandatory minimum sentencing law curses that has been inflicted on even the most innocent of minor offense prisoners. I didn't read the full paragraph about the fact that Weldon was involved with a notorious street gang back in 2002-03 or the fact he dropped out of high school after allowing himself to impregnate a girl or two at an early age, which is no wonder he had kids at pretty young age. The main reason is that throughout his life Weldon has made some of the most dumbest, dangerous choices that would lead him to getting where he is now... Another lifetime prisoner of the "system". But in all the mis comprehension deep down he really is a good guy who's only regards was to give his kids a better life. One in which he never had growing up, and I think he wants to make up for all of the crap he put himself and his family into from the start. I believe he deserves another chance at life, like his sister Lisa said in another interview, "Even good people make mistakes." Weldon had his share of serving time for his mistakes and now he is being wrongly convicted in a manner so harsh that is worthy for Real criminals who committed Real crimes. And the tragic thing about it is he is not the only one. We have got to readjust our Criminal Justice System and only way of doing so is by taking the country back through our voices and our votes. The next presidential race is one that will stand as being the most impacted voting race in history, because as being known through the ages as "the land of the Free" has certainly not been living up to its potentiality. We are going to bring justice and equality back into what suppose to make America "the greatest country on Earth" when in fact we are not right now just there Yet. I'm going to be voting for the right person to be the next "Commander & Chief" for the next 4 years and if they succeed, they will most likely put an end to the mandatory minimum curse forever and set every innocent inmate free including Weldon. I want to see him start his life over again on a new leaf, where he and his family will finally earn that happy ending/beginning that millions of others like him have been dreaming, fighting, crying and praying they would achieve someday. He would find a new career and be able to provide for his family again only this time it WILL be better. I still fight for every good american's rights to seek freedom and justice from now on, and I will keep fighting for Weldon's freedom to until he and his loved ones love happily ever after! God Bless America's Innocent Prisoners & Veterans & God Bless America***

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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